The East Cape iwi at the centre of an attempt to overturn oil exploration licences granted to Brazilian oil giant Petrobras chose not to engage with government officials when the chance arose to raise concerns over deep-sea exploration, the Wellington High Court has heard.
Lawyers for the Minister of Energy were presenting in the case taken by Greenpeace, the global environmental group, and Te Whanau a Apanui iwi, who claim the government breached both Treaty of Waitangi and environmental assessment obligations by issuing the licence in the Raukumara oil and gas prospect, in deep water off around East Cape, to Petrobras.
However, Crown lawyer Una Jagose outlined an extensive process of iwi consultation that occurred in 2008, before the Ministry for Economic Development's minerals unit made a "block offer" of exploration opportunities in several lightly explored economic zones, including the Raukumara Basin.
Brazil's Petrobras won rights to explore the permit area and conducted two-dimensional seismic testing in the area, beyond the 12 mile nautical limit in New Zealand's Exclusive Economic Zone, early last year.
A Greenpeace/Apanui flotilla protested the programme, although its application for a judicial review of the process that saw the licences granted was lodged only recently.
What Greenpeace lawyer Davey Salmond had dismissed yesterday as "a few phone calls" from government officials to try and engage with Apanui on the block offer programme was in fact a lengthy process of attempted engagement, Jagose told the court.
The iwi had nominated representatives, but told Crown lawyers it did not want to discuss deep-sea oil and gas exploration for fear of cutting across negotiations relating to the inshore foreshore and seabed.
Government officials considered this, concluded there was no such conflict, sought further engagement with the iwi, and advised then Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee when no response was been received.
Brownlee then issued the permits under the block offer programme.
Also appearing for the Crown, Tim Smith argued Salmond was wrong to have claimed Brownlee was the last "gatekeeper" for deep-sea exploration wells going ahead, citing a wide range of government agencies and relevant legislation relating to environmental impact and pollution risk assessments, marine mammal protection, and occupational health and safety on offshore oil rigs.
However, this wider matrix of responsibilities also meant Brownlee, as Energy Minister, was only obliged to consider the energy resource potential of the area, not its environmental impacts.
"This is seen through the eyes of a resource geologist rather than a conservationist," said Smith. "The conservationist comes later."
Most of the responsibility for environmental impacts rested with the Minister of Transport - ironically now Brownlee, who relinquished the energy portfolio after the Christchurch earthquakes - under the Maritime Safety Act, said Smith.
Jagose said Te Whanau a Apanui could have raised issues such as impacts of seismic surveying on whales, a tribal taonga, or treasure, in the block offer consultation process.